In California anything is possible in the name of art. Christo built a 24 1/2 mile fence, Chris Burden had himself shot and now Lowell Darling is running for governor.
The Will Rogers of the art world, Darling has previously laced up the San Andreas Fault with rawhide to save California from earthquakes, acupunctured drought-stricken areas of the state with 20-foot-high needles to bring rain, and nailed down cities all over the county to prevent them from flying off the globe due to the excess weight of overpopulation.
This week in Sacramento, for a filing fee of $982, he will officially enter the gubernatorial primary in June, the only Democrat to challenge the renomination of Jerry Brown. On George Washington's birthday Darling announced his candidacy in Los Angeles. Sporting an Artists's Proof button on his lapel, he spoke at a press conference at the Boxing and Wrestling Hall of Fame, which is located in the backroom of a Hollywood bowling alley.
"I offer you four years of relief from politics," the 35-year-old artist declared, raising his arms in a traditional victory salute but crossing the fingers of both his hands. "It's a safer bet to vote for me than buying a New York State Lottery ticket."
The members of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a group of prizefighters and wrestlers turned Hollywood extras and heavies, vigorously applauded Darling's platform. Among his campaign promises:
Write Your Own Ticket. "Every billion that's spent on highways could support 33,333.3 citizens at $30,000 a year. I will hire them all to be themselves."
Replace Taxes With Incredible Good Luck. "I'm going to hire Reverend Ike to handle the state budget."
Stop the Space Shuttle. "Let them come to us. If people from outer space want vacations in California, let them buy their own tickets."
Put Your Mind Where Your Motor Is. "Replace the internal combustion engine with psycho-powered cars. The mind can do anything. Let Californians think their way down the freeway by 1980."
Ban 1989. "Go from 1983 to 1985. Treat 1984 like the 13th floor of a building."
Mike Mazurki, a hulking ex-wrestler with a jagged nose and cauliflower ears, stood at the back of the room, chomping on a cigar as he listened to Darling's speech. A veteran of 35 years in the ring and 350 movies, he watched the proceedings with amused skepticism.
"I don't know," he said. "Everyone wants to run for office these days. Lowell's as good as anyone. If he's really serious, we'll back him up. But with Lowell, it's hard to say."
The question of Darling's seriousness has plagued him from the beginning of his artistic career. The first to raise the question was the IRS. Darling was an art student at Southern Illinois University at the time and deeply involved with Buckminister Fuller problems of overpopulation. His first show was an exhibition of abstract ceramic sculptures expressing his concern about the population crisis. None of the "baby machines" sold. When Darling deducted the expenses for the show on his income tax, the IRS disallowed them - an artist who hadn't sold was not a legitimate artist. Darling fought back.
"To me it was a moral issue," he said. "What is or isn't an artist shouldn't be dependent on the sale of things. So I refused to show in galleries again until I won the fight." Eight years and two National Endowment of the Arts grants later, the IRS finally capitulated, but in the meantime Darling had become a conceptual artist. The conceptual art emerged in the late '60s in the belief that ideas have as much energy as objects and an artist does not necessarily need to fabricate objects to create art.
Darling's first conceptual effort began as a joke. In 1970, when frustrated because he felt no one was paying attention to Fuller's ideas, he took a hammer and literally nailed down his first city, Carbondale, III.In contrast to the failure of his first gallery exhibition, the nailing of Carbondale resulted in a front-page article in the Chicago Daily News. Darling quickly recognized where his true talents lay.
In 1971, following the California earthquake, he came West to stitch up the San Andreas Fault. (There hasn't been a major earthquake since.) Discovering Hollywood, the country's center of hype and fantasy, he realized at once it was his "spiritual home."
In California he continued his imaginative attack on the country's social problems. When Americans suddenly discovered the healing powers of acupuncture on the human body, Darling decided to apply the same technique to the body politic. Using javelin-sized needles he traveled up and down the state acupuncturing urban ills. The events themselves may have been hokey, but the tapes Darling recorded of the media coverage that his acupuncture attracted are fascinating. As in all conceptual art, the final work is a product of both the artist's vision and the viewer's mind and experience.
"It's like a coloring book," says Darling. "I do the outline, people fill in the colors they want, or leave them alone. People tell me what their problems are - heroin, water, pollution., I've been asked to stick needles in sewers, city hall, even in the mayor."
Generally wherever Darling went, press followed. "Lowell's a genius at manipulating the media," said John Baldessari, another conceptual artist who is a longtime friend. "If he were in advertising, he'd be a millionaire."
Darling laughed at the remark. "My parents wonder why I'm not rich too," he said. "They see me all the time on TV. I'm actually one of the most expensive artists around. My videotapes would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if I did them myself.But then I'm also one of the poorest artists because I don't earn anything from the tapes." To earn a living from his work Darling became a "stand-up artist" traveling from college to college, showing his tapes and lecturing on his [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE].
Part video artist, part stand-up comic, part manipulator of the press, Darling has also dabbled in archeology - creating a slide show about Hollywood from film clips he collected in the gutter - and experimented in anthropology by making videotapes about the members of the Cauliflower Alley Club and also about a group of mental patients with whom he lived for several months.
"Really what I am is a hit-and-run artist. My work is very much of the moment. I do things to see what happens, then I leave."
Darling's work of the moment, the gubernatorial primary, he sees as a three-month piece. He's happy the return will be in June."It took me so long to prove myself as an artist," he said. "I don't want to take that long to find out if I'm a politician."
His campaign plans and financing are vague. "Like any politician I'm accumulating debts," he said. He plans to pay off some of them by writing a book of thoughts on his campaign and producing a feature film. Next week in San Francisco the Museum of Conceputal Art is holding a $1,000-a-plate dinner as a show of support. "Of course, this is a conceptual art dinner. Most of them won't pay."
Undaunted by finances, he has exchanged his blue jeans for a suit. To keep his hands from atrophying from pressing too much flesh, he has designed an artifical hand to allow him to shake voters' hands without losing his grip. A pair of red-cloth lips on a stick will allow him to kiss babies "without getting pablum all over my new suits." His pink and black '56 Plymouth is ready.
"My palmist told me 1973 is my year. All three lines of my biorythyms cross on election night in June."
Like Mike Mazurki, the art world has mixed reactions about Darling's candidacy. Chris Burden, the avantgarde sensationalist and a friend of Darling volunteered to assassinate him at his L.A. press conference as a gesture of support.
Douglas Huebler, a pioneer conceptual artist and the dean of the art school at California Institute of the Arts, is less enthusiastic. "In the name of art you can do anything," he said, "but in the name of art you can also make judgements of the value of it. The art context is one of an ongoing series of investigations. If Darling can identify his work with that kind of investigation, I'm for it, but if he thinks he's going to make people feel different about politics, I prefer Art Buchwald, who's better ar it."
When the question of seriousness was posed to Darling he was as equivocal as the best politican. "Sometimes I say I'm very serious sometimes not at all," he smiled, striking as enigmatic a pose as his gubernational opponent Brown. "If people deserve me, they'll get me as governor,"
"It's all up for grabs," says artist Baldessari. "If we knew if Lowell were really serious, then he'd be less interesting. But it's a cliffhanger."